Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley managed to hold onto his job for a full year after the state capitol in Montgomery exploded with the news of his romantic relationship with a top aide, but, on Monday, with allies in the statehouse fleeing and serious criminal charges in the offing, the 74-year-old Republican surrendered—offering his resignation, pleading guilty to two misdemeanor crimes, and vowing never to hold public office again as part of a negotiated plea with the state’s attorney general’s office. Bentley appears set to avoid jail time for crimes stemming from his attempts to conduct and conceal his apparent affair with Rebekah Mason, an aide 30-years his junior.
Bentley’s resignation brings to a close the last chapter of his governorship that was full of tawdry twists and turns. After a full career as a doctor, Bentley didn’t hold public office until the age of 60. The former dermatologist won a seat in the statehouse in 2003 before running for governor in 2010. When Bentley was up for reelection in 2014, he won reelection in a landslide with a record 64 percent of the vote. While Bentley’s political rise may have been unconventional, his fall was pretty standard by Alabama political standards—he is the fourth governor to resign from office and the third of the last six to run into legal problems for abusing the office.
Bentley’s legal problems were rooted in personal ones. Early in his first term, Bentley hired Rebekah Mason, a former local TV anchor. As Mason’s job moved closer to the governor, the relationship turned romantic. Racy text messages and phone conversations recorded by Bentley’s then-wife splashed rumors of the affair on the front page. “When I stand behind you and I put my arms around you, and I put my hands on your breasts, and I put my hands on you and pull you in real close, hey, I love that, too,” Bentley told Mason in one exchange. “Rebekah, I just, I miss you… I worry about loving you so much.”
In the aftermath of the revelations in March 2016, Mason resigned from her job, but Bentley persisted, refusing to leave office while maintaining he had done nothing wrong. It took a full year to dislodge Bentley from the governor’s mansion in the overwhelmingly red state. From AL.com:
Bentley’s plea comes after a turbulent year and a catastrophic week for the governor. On Friday, facing public criticism and pressure from his own party, he vowed to remain in office. “Once again let me say, I do not plan to resign,” he said in an emotional press conference. “I have done nothing illegal.”
But in many ways the writing was on the wall after the [Alabama] Ethics Commission on Wednesday found enough evidence to believe Bentley had committed four felonies, including a violation of the ethics act and three violations of the Fair Campaign Practices Act. Those charges, which the commission forwarded to Montgomery County prosecutors, are each punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The attorney general’s office, which has long been investigating, has the ability to take over those ethics cases.
Perhaps the most damage to Bentley came Friday, when the House Judiciary Committee - which has initiated impeachment proceedings against him - released the findings of lawyer Jack Sharman, who was hired to investigate Bentley and whether he used state money or resources to conduct or cover up an improper relationship. The report was damning, including sworn testimony from current and former state employees who claim they were harassed and threatened as Bentley sought to keep the affair secret.
…Bentley on Friday - seeking to head off the release of the report - said he had made his peace with God and had moved forward… But the release of the report - and its 3000-plus pages of exhibits - painted a dark picture of the governor. Sworn testimony from former staff members revealed a long-running affair, with questionable activities from improper use of state aircraft to intimidation of witnesses and campaign violations. The report revealed that Bentley’s ex-wife, Dianne Bentley, made the recordings of the phone conversations when she began to suspect an affair.
Bentley’s resignation will likely not be the end of the fallout. The report implicated other top state officials and raised questions about how the previous state attorney general—and current U.S. Senator—Luther Strange conducted his investigation and under what terms he was appointed to the Senate earlier this year by Bentley to replace Jeff Sessions. Strange’s office staved off state house impeachment proceedings against Bentley while he was attorney general promising an investigation only to be nominated to the U.S. Senate, allowing Bentley to choose his successor.